Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review: Broke, USA by Gary Rivlin

Reading books about the working poor tends to have a negative effect on my headspace. Reading Nickel and Dimed sent me into a state of simmering righteous anger that lasted...oh, five years and counting, occasionally boiling over whenever I happened to be in the presence of people who insist that the poor "just need to work harder." It's also why I think everyone in the United States should be forced to spend six months either waiting tables or working a minimum-wage retail job and have to live off their income. It's an attitude adjustment I think a lot of people could use.

I learned a lot at Vanderbilt, but what I consider the most important lesson I received took place in Dining Services, where I worked part-time in exchange for $6 an hour and a free meal plan. Most, if not all, of my co-workers were solidly working-class, and often worked two jobs to support themselves and their families (unsurprisingly, Vanderbilt didn't, and, to my knowledge, still doesn't, pay low-level employees a living wage). My involvement in the living wage campaign on campus was the inevitable result of a number of conversations with my coworkers, who couldn't make ends meet no matter how hard they worked. It was there that I learned about how things like pawnshops, cash advances, payday loans, instant tax refunds, and auto title loans worked: my coworkers would mention in passing, "Oh, I have to run by Charlotte after work to pick up my TV," or "I need to stop by the check cashing place to pay my loan back."

It's a sign of my middle class background that I didn't know what these institutions were or how they operated. Because while my family was definitely broke when I was growing up, my parents were of a social status to where they had access to banks and bank loans, and didn't use payday loans or pawnshops to make up the difference. So while I'd seen check cashing places and pawn shops dotting the strip mall landscape of South Knoxville, I'd never been in one or really knew how they worked. It wasn't until I actually knew people who used these services that I realized how prevalent and how exploitative they were.

Broke, USA supplemented my knowledge on this subject greatly. Rivlin depicts the rise of the so-called poverty industry: pawn shops, check advance companies, car title loaners, rent-to-own furniture and appliance centers, and, of course, subprime mortgage lenders. Tracing the roots of these industries to the individuals who founded them, Rivlin reveals the corrupt, exploitative nature of the industry that held state legislatures in their back pockets for far too long, ultimately detailing the numerous ways in which the poverty industry has harmed all of society, not just the working and lower-middle classes. Rivlin excels at putting human faces on the main players in the war over Big Poverty, and provides a cogent narrative of what caused the economic meltdown of 2008.

4 out of 5 stars. I highly recommend this book for those looking for an understanding of the subject matter.

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